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Bennet C. Riley

Bennet C. Riley
  Military Governor of California
In office
Preceded by Persifor Frazer Smith
Succeeded by Peter Hardeman Burnett
Personal details
Born (1787-11-27)November 27, 1787
St. Mary's County, Maryland
Died June 6, 1853(1853-06-06) (aged 65)
Black Rock, near Buffalo, New York
Spouse(s) Arabella Israel Riley
Profession Soldier
Religion Roman Catholic
Military service
Allegiance United States of America
Service/branch  United States Army
Years of service 1813–1850
Rank Colonel
Bvt. Brigadier General
Bvt. Major General
Unit U.S. Regiment of Riflemen
5th U.S. Infantry
6th U.S. Infantry
Commands 2nd U.S. Infantry
Riley's Brigade
Department of Upper California
1st U.S. Infantry
Battles/wars Arikara War
2nd Seminole War
Mexican-American War

Bennet C. Riley[Note 1] (27 November 1787 in St. Mary's County, Maryland – 6 June 1853 in Black Rock, now part of Buffalo, New York was the sixth and last military governor of the territory of California before it became a U.S. state. He ordered the election of representatives to a state constitutional convention, and handed over all civil authority to elected delegates at the end of 1849. He participated in the War of 1812 on Lake Ontario. He also served as a general in the United States Army during the Seminole War in Florida, and Mexican-American War.


  • Family 1
  • Military career 2
    • Role in California statehood 2.1
  • Legacy 3
  • Notes and citations 4
    • Notes 4.1
    • Citations 4.2
  • External links 5


Bennet Riley was born to Irish-Catholic parents, Bennet Riley and Susanna Ann Drury[1] in St. Mary's, Maryland, 1787; his mother died in 1792 and his father in 1811. Early in life apprenticed to a cobbler: he served as a foreman in a shoe factory and later as a sailor on a privateer.[2] He married Arabella Israel, of Philadelphia, on 9 November 1834 in at the Jefferson Barracks, Lemay, Missouri.[3] They had six children: William Davenport Riley and Samuel Israel Riley, twins, both died in Fort King, Florida, on 15 and 17 November 1841; Bennet Israel Riley, born 1835 in Massachusetts, served in the Navy, and died aboard the war sloop Albany in September, 1854; Arabella I Riley, 1837–1916) (never married); and Edward Bishop Dudley Riley (1839–1918).[Note 2] Ulysses S. Grant described him as "the finest specimen of physical manhood I had ever looked upon...6'2 (190 cm) in his stocking feet, straight as the undrawn [sic] bowstring, broad shouldered with every limb in perfect proportion, with an eagle and a step as light as a forest tiger.[4] An accident or injury in his youth caused him to lose part of his palette, and he spoke with a hoarse voice.[5][6]

Military career

Riley volunteered for service in the War of 1812,[7] and on 19 January 1813, he was appointed Ensign of Rifles. In March of the same year, he became a third lieutenant and in April 1814 a second lieutenant in the First Rifles. He saw action at Sackets Harbor, New York, in second of two battles for control of the shipyards on Lake Ontario. He gained a promotion to the first lieutenant in March 1817. Riley was further advanced to captain in the 5th U.S. Infantry, and by 1821 he was transferred to the 6th U.S. Infantry.[5][6]

The officer joined his superior, Colonel Henry Leavenworth, in an engagement against the Arikara Indians in August 1823. Riley was honored for ten years of faithful service by being promoted to brevet major on 6 August 1828, leading the first military escort along the Santa Fe Trail in 1829.[8][9]

He had tenures as Major in the 4th U.S. Infantry (1837) and lieutenant colonel, 2nd U.S. Infantry, beginning in December 1839. [10] The Battle of Chokachotta in Florida took place on 2 June 1840. Colonel Riley was cited for bravery and good conduct during this engagement in the Seminole Wars. He gained the rank of Brevet Colonel in February 1844. [5][6]

During the Mexican-American War, Riley was colonel of the 2nd U.S. Infantry and fought at the Siege of Veracruz and the Battle of Cerro Gordo, where he was cited for bravery. [11] He was brevetted brigadier general and assumed command of the 2nd Brigade in David E. Twiggs's Second Division. He led his brigade at the Battle of Contreras and the Battle of Churubusco, where Winfield Scott gave him credit for the U.S. victory: Riley had discovered a way around the rear of Velencia's position.[12] He was appointed brevet major general and fought at the Chapultepec. After the battle at Churubusco, he also presided over the courts-martial of 72 deserters discovered hiding in the San Patricios convent.[13] He is generally considered one of the ablest brigade commanders in the army during the war with Mexico.[5][6]

Role in California statehood

In the years 1849 and 1850, General Riley commanded the Military Department in Upper California and exercised the duties of Provincial Governor: the inaction of Congress in deciding the issue of California statehood complicated his service.[14] He relieved Colonel Richard B. Mason on 13 April 1849, as the Gold Rush worked into its most violent phase. In addition to the influx of prospectors seeking their fortunes, daily desertions of his own men rapidly depleted his troops. At the height of the Gold Rush, he had eight companies of infantry, two artillery, and two dragoons stretched between San Diego and San Francisco. When Congress refused to act on the statehood of California and New Meixco, he called for the election of civil officers to a de facto government.Consequently, the military authorities could not prevent the slaughter of California's native population nor could they suppress the violence in the lawless gold camps. He relinquished all his civil power on 20 December 1849.[15]

After his administrative service concluded on the Pacific, Riley was ordered to take command of a regiment on the Rio Grande. However ill-health prevented further service on his part. He returned to his home in Black Rock, near Buffalo, New York, where he died of cancer.[5] General Riley died on Thursday evening, 10 June 1853. He left a widow (Arabella died on 12 February 1894) and three children (the youngest, Edward, served in the Confederate Army and later was a railroad employee in Buffalo). Riley is buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery, Buffalo.[6]


On 27 June 1853, Camp Center (Kansas Territory) was named Fort Riley in Bennet Riley's honor, even though he never served at the fort, and it was a cavalry post, while Riley's career was that of an infantryman. Riley County, Kansas is also named in his honour.[16]

Notes and citations


  1. ^ His name is sometimes written as Bennett, but his own correspondence uses the spelling of Bennet. See United States. Congress. House. 13th Congress, 2d Session-49th Congress. House Documents, Otherwise Publ. as Executive Documents: 13th Congress, 2d Session-49th Congress, 1st Session, p. 822. for an example.
  2. ^ Edward Riley graduated from West Point and served with the 4th Infantry in California;, upon the outbreak of war in 1861, Edward Riley resigned his commission on 13 June 1861, and left with Lewis Armistead for Texas, and then to Virginia. He served as a staff officer, under Bragg and Johnston and several others, as part of the Confederate staff.


  1. ^ Spencer Tucker, San Patricio Battalion, found in Alexander Bielakowski (ed), Ethnic and Racial Minorities in the U.S. Military: An Encyclopedia, ABC-CLIO, Jan 11, 2013. 9781598844283
  2. ^ Jefferson Davis, Papers, LSU Press, 1975 9780807158654, p. 602.
  3. ^ Newspapers and Periodicals. American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts. U.S., Newspaper Extractions from the Northeast, 1704-1930 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2014, 29 Nov 1834. Accessed 31 October 201.(subscription required)
  4. ^ Susannah Ural Bruce, The Harp and the Eagle: Irish-American Volunteers and the Union Army, 1861–1865, NYU Press, 2006, 9780814799390 pp. 36–37.
  5. ^ a b c d e Davis, p. 602.
  6. ^ a b c d e New York Times, General RileyNew York Times: , June 11, 1853.
  7. ^ Durwood Ball, Army Regulars on the Western Frontier, 1848–1861., University of Oklahoma Press, 2001, 9780806133126 p. 8..
  8. ^ Davis, p. 602.
  9. ^ Otis E. Young, Philip St. George Cooke, The First Military Escort on the Santa Fe Trail, 1829: From the Journal and Reports of Major Bennet Riley and Lieutenant Philip St. George Cooke, A. H. Clark Company, 1952.
  10. ^ Davis, p. 602.
  11. ^ Davis, p. 602.
  12. ^ Philip F. Rose, Mexico Redux, iUniverse, Sep 21, 2012 9781475943313 pp. 204–205.
  13. ^ Tucker, in Bielakowski.
  14. ^ Anthony Quinn. The Rivals: William Gwin, David Broderick, and the Birth of California. U of Nebraska Press, 1997 pp. 22–24. 9780803288515
  15. ^ Ball, pp. 12–15.
  16. ^ Michael A. Beatty, County Name Origins of the United States, McFarland, 2001 9780786410255. #937, p. 140.

External links

  • General RileyNew York Times: , June 11, 1853, obituary
  • Guide to the Bennet Riley Papers at The Bancroft Library
  • Short bios of all California military governors
Political offices
Preceded by
Persifor Frazer Smith
Military Governor of California
April 12, 1849–December 20, 1849
Succeeded by
Governor of California
Peter Hardeman Burnett
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